Odenathus and Zenobia

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Odenathus ("little ear") Septimius (258–67 c.e.) was a Palmyrene vassal of Rome; Zenobia Julia Aurelia Septimia, his wife, succeeded him as regent for their minor son Vaballathus (267–71 c.e.). Odenathus maintained at least a nominal loyalty to Rome, slaying Callistus and Quietus, the rival pretenders to the throne of the emperor Gallienus and warring against the Persians who had invaded the Roman east. Palmyra reached the zenith of her affluence when Gallienus conferred the title corrector totius orientis upon Odenathus, legitimizing him as the virtual viceroy of Rome over the east. His assassination left Zenobia, famous for her beauty and political acumen, the ruler of Palmyra, since their son Vaballathus was still a minor. Zenobia, controlling Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, aimed at political independence from Rome and in 271 openly assumed the title of Augusta. In the ensuing war the Roman emperor Aurelian reconquered all her territory and took her prisoner. According to Zosimus, Historiae (1:59, 3), Zenobia perished while crossing the Bosphorus, but most scholars accept the account of Flavius Vopiscus (Aurelian 34, 3) and Trebellius Pollio (The Thirty Pretenders 30, 24, 6) that after being exhibited in Aurelian's march of triumph, she ended her life as a Roman matron on an estate in Tibur (Tivoli).

Graetz was the first to identify Odenathus as the Ben Naẓer of the Talmud, which regards him as half king, half robber (Ket. 51b). Funk, on the other hand, identifies him with "Adi the Arab" (Av. Zar. 33a; Men. 69b). According to the Midrash (Gen. R. 76:6), he succeeded (the pretenders) Macrianus, Carinus, and Quietus (or Cyriades) and was merely an agent of Rome, the "little horn" predicted by Daniel 7:8. If Odenathus is identical with Ben Naẓer, who according to Sherira Gaon (Iggeret, p. 82, ed. Lewin) destroyed Nehardea, it becomes clear why the daughters of Samuel who were captured there could be taken to Palestine to be redeemed (Ket. 23a). Zenobia is reported to have pardoned a Jewish prisoner, probably political, when shown the bloody sword with which the prisoner's brother was killed by Ben Naẓer (tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b; Funk takes this story as a confirmation of Zenobia's collaboration in Odenathus' assassination).

Athanasius (298–373) states that Zenobia was Jewish (Historia Arianorum ad Monachus 71, pg 25, 777b). Though this statement is repeated by Theoredet (386–457) and Photius (820–891), scholars (S. Brady, J. Fevrière, etc.) give little credence to it. Her patronizing of Paul of Samosata, a Christian-Jewish thinker, has erroneously been given religious significance. However, recently discovered inscriptions, containing dedications such as "levarekh shemah le-alma alma" ("to the One whose name is blessed forever," etc.) as well as expressions from the Psalms, do testify to the penetration of Jewish ideas into the syncretistic religion of the Palmyrene population. Zenobia herself rebuilt a synagogue in Egypt. Both Odenathus and Zenobia figure in Arab legends, which may contain kernels of truth (see T. Noeldeke).


T. Noeldeke, Geschichte der Perser und Araber… des Tabari (1879), 22f., 25 n. 1; S. Funk, Die Juden in Babylonien (1902) 75–78; G. Bardy, Paul de Samosate (1923), 172–4; J.G. Février, Essai sur l'historie politique et économique de Palmyre (1931), 79–141; idem, La religion des Palmyréniens (1931); Lieberman, in: jqr, 37 (1946/47), 32–38; M. Avi-Yonah, Bi-Ymei Roma u-Bizantiyyon (1952), 81–83; E. Kornemann, Grosse Frauen des Altertums (19524), 288–313; Baron, Social2, 3 (1957), 62f.; Alon, Toledot, 2 (19612), 168–78; Neusner, Babylonia, 2 (1966), 48–52 (which questions Sherira's date for the destruction of Nehardea in the year 258 and contains further bibliography).

[Hugo Mantel]